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10 special things to do to support someone with cancer

People are often uncomfortable about what to say or do in the face of suffering. But simple acts of kindness and support can help someone thrive through cancer and beyond. Specific types of kindness from both the community and medical team even improves patients’ outcomes.

Yet, many people, and most of them women, don't ask for help. Dr. Beth Karlan, Director of the Cedars Sinai Women’s Cancer Program, speaking at Hear Her, Heal Her: A Jewish Conversation about Women’s Health at Cedars Sinai Hospital, says about women, "Our role are as caregivers. We come last. But to protect those we love, we have to take care of ourselves." She added, women are "unique individuals that experience our lives fully and we are stronger."

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In my last post, I listed the the 10 things never to say to a cancer patient, based on my own experiences with cancer, and my work as a dietitian with clients whose cancer is behind them. On the other hand, we can all help by providing community. Many people living with cancer feel that getting cancer also means finding a community. Dr. Karlan says, "Community is therapy."

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Here are the 10 simple kindnesses you can do to support your friend or family member through a difficult time.

  1. Make a meal. Offers of food and meals for the entire family are extremely helpful. Cancer patients are physically exhausted because of treatments and medical appointments. They may be anxious they are not providing nutritious meals for their children and themselves. Ask about food preferences and any allergies. You can set up a meal train, and alert your friends. But remember to respect the person's privacy, and do not add people to the meal train list without asking first. Additionally, too much food can also be stressful, especially if the family is concerned about waste, so make sure to coordinate meals and drop-off times.

  2. Ask exactly what he needs. Specific offers of help are more useful than a general offer of, "Call me if you need anything." Chances are, he won't call. A better way is to say, "I’m off Tuesday, what can I do for you? Or, "I’m at the supermarket, what can I pick up for you?"

  3. Offer rides to medical appointments, or carpools for their children. People hesitate to ask, but knowing their children are safely driven home is very comforting, and also gives them that extra time to rest so they appear strong for their children.

  4. Offer to walk with him. The latest research confirms that a walk relieves fatigue from treatments even better than medications to treat fatigue. A 15-minute walk does wonders.

  5. Shampoo her hair. One cancer patient told me the best act of kindness done for her was a friend who came over and washed her hair. She felt refreshed and rejuvenated, and is convinced it helped her heal after surgery.

  6. Give him space and comfort when you visit. He may need a good cry, to be angry, or simply be. Visit only after asking permission. Visits can be very helpful, but drop ins are not always appreciated, and may be an intrusion.

  7. Offer the spouse or caregiver help too. Caregiver stress can be high, given that they are expected to support the patient both physically and mentally. Some of these new roles may not be familiar to them, and can be exhausting.

  8. Movies, books, and any distractions are appreciated. Humor, trashy novels, and mysteries, are all OK. So are books by survivors and health professionals with accurate, science-backed content, books on spiritual subjects, and mindful living.

  9. Offer to go with her to a medical appointment and take notes for her. Patients are overwhelmed with decisions about medical treatments during an emotional time.

  10. Finally, it’s OK to sit with him and be silent. It’s also OK for him to be silent. You can simply sit with him and be a source of comfort. Patients are sometimes too tired to talk, but do appreciate the company.

Prepared meals for cancer care

Kindness also extends to medical care. Studies now show kindness can have a larger effect than the statistical significance of taking aspirin to reduce heart attacks. Kindness leads to quicker healing, lessened anxiety and pain, lower blood pressure, and less time in the hospital. Six types of kindness have been identified as the best path to helping patients heal, according to Leonard L. Berry, University Distinguished Professor of Marketing at the Texas A&M University Mays Business School and senior fellow at the not-for-profit Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, Mass.

The six types of kindnesses from medical providers for cancer care include:

  • Deep listening.

  • Empathy for the patient with cancer.

  • Generous efforts that go beyond what patients and families expect.

  • Timely care using a variety of tools and systems that reduce stress and anxiety.

  • Gentle honesty.

  • Support for family caregivers.

Community is the ideal way to give comfort and support in cancer care. People in treatment for cancer benefit from acts of kindness by healing better, and healing faster. It's not surprising that acts of kindness also benefit the person who offers the kindness, just as much as the cancer patient.

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